Why do people still disdain science fiction and fantasy?

In 2016, why do so many people disdain the science fiction and fantasy genres*?

This is a question my daughter often asks me.  She’s 21 now (a fact which feel like both science fiction and fantasy, some days) and has long been mystified by people who dismiss her preferred stories.

12 Tomorrows coverIt’s a question I used to ask myself, back in the 20th century.  As a kid I didn’t understand why so many of my peers and elders sneered at library books with rocket ships on the cover.  As an adult I still see this.  One literature professor circa 1999 told me – with pride – how he successfully blocked at attempt to get Ray Bradbury to speak on his campus.  Ray Bradbury!

The question’s different now, in part because we’ve living in a new century clearly marked by science fiction features: flying killer robots, supercomputers in our hands, exoplanets popping up all over the place, social media users and computer hackers influencing geopolitics, and so on.  I keep telling folks that only by reading (or watching, or listening to) science fiction can they be prepared for the 21st century.

It’s easy to find examples of genre disdain, so I’ll only mention a couple.  Slate’s Culture Gabfest podcast, for instance, loves to mock just about any trace of sf because it’s sf.They often have to import experts to discuss genre topics. During their review of Gravity (2013) the hosts literally giggle anytime they mention the word “space”.  Because, you know, space!  They dismissed Newt Gingrinch’s call to mine the moon because, see, it’s the moon. Nobody would seriously pay attention to space exploration, right?

More entertaining is the New York Times’ hilarious first review of Game of Thrones, which mocks the show at length for being sexist, too complicated, unworthy of HBO.  It’s just too, too fantasy.  (More on this in a few paragraphs)

A very recent example is this Mother Jones headline:

Trump’s Campaign CEO Ran a Secretive Sci-Fi Project in the Arizona Desert

Which is a very odd headline, in fact.  The article is about a science project, a test of humans’ capacity to survive in an enclosed, self-sustaining ecosystem.  The criticisms of Bannon have nothing to do with sf; instead, they’re about charges of being mean to people, or being hypocritical.  Indeed, it’s a very real-world article.

The only mention of sf – one only, in the entire piece – is to deny science fiction’s role: “The original Biosphere project, completed in 1991 by a company called Space Biosphere Ventures and funded by a Texas billionaire named Edward Bass, was an attempt to turn science fiction into reality.”  Yet the Mother Jones editorial staff (I assume it was them, and not the article’s author) slapped the derogatory “sci-fi” form of “science fiction” into the title because…. it’s funnier, somehow…?  I don’t recall any sf themes coming out of the Trump campaign.

So why the disdain for sf in 2016?

Let me raise some likely explanations, then ask what you all think.

Elitism of taste Many reader can recall being told that science fiction, fantasy, or horror were not “real literature”.   A subset of realistic literature is, in fact, real lit.  To dismiss the genre is to identify and elevate one’s own taste.  It’s almost an act of virtue signaling.

Does sf’s recent popularity help feed this elite dislike?  Fantasy has become mainstream, with the huge successes of the Lord of the Rings films and Game of Thrones.  Science fiction repeatedly appears in movies and the best-seller lists.  Star Trek and Star Wars franchises sprawl across society.  Hating sf now has the virtue of being rebellious and nonconformist.

Criticism of quality This is an old one, the argument that science fiction and fantasy just aren’t well written.  It’s very easy to counter, so if you need to, here are the responses:

  1. Point to brilliantly written sf.  Go back to Wells and Stapledon, or to more recent writers like Russ, LeGuin, Delany, or to new stars like Mieville and Leckie.
  2. Identify the huge majority of badly-written non-genre fiction.  As a former bookseller I have many authors in mind, and used to cite Danielle Steele as a stand-in.  Dan Brown is a good one, too.
  3. Note that sf is often received as a genre of ideas, and it’s foolish to dismiss that aspect.

Science Fiction Museum_Jessica SpenglerBonus point: be warned that critics will often pick the best non-sf writers and oppose them to the worst sf they can find. Knowing that ahead of time, you can riposte.  You’re welcome.

Rarely can a critic stand up to these responses, largely because, like the censors in Ray Bradbury’s “Usher II”, they just haven’t read that much of what they hate.

The charge of escapism I must have been in 4th grade when I first heard this criticism of sf.  “It’s not about the real world,” they (teacher? librarian? random adult? older kid?) explained.  “It’s… escapist.”

It’s a very weird charge.  It’s based on a narrow, almost social realist sense of art, that it must only depict the here-and-now.  This rules out a large segment of what many would call literature, the works that prominently feature monsters, non-currently-worshipped gods, and the landscape of dreams.  Think of the Illiad, or Beowulf, or the Ring Cycle, or Orlando.

This charge can rule out historical fiction, which can be, as Kim Stanley Robinson argues, as escapist as science fiction.  Maybe more so:

“[Historical novelists] tend to do the same things the modernists did in smaller ways… A good new novel about the first world war, for instance, is still not going to tell us more than Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford. More importantly, these novels are not about now in the way science fiction is.”

This last point relies on a standard observation from literary criticism, that fantasy and science fiction are always speaking about their present situation.

There’s a strong anti-imagination element to this criticism of the genre.  We could reach back to Plato’s dislike of poets for encouraging us to see things that aren’t real.  Does the current disdain for sf really have such ancient roots?

There’s also a strange, even sinister politics in criticizing reading (or watching, or listening, or playing) for escapism.  It’s based on a desire to keep people in the here and now, a kind of surveillance of the imagination.  What’s behind that overseer’s urge?

spaceship and spaceman_Tom1231Perceived gender exclusivity Around 2006 I gave a workshop as an elite liberal arts college in New England.  During conversation with an anthropologist, I asked her if she’d read Ursula LeGuin, because of her anthropological themes, and her parents being famous anthro – The prof stopped me.  “I’m a girl,” explained this middle-aged and extremely well educated woman, “and I don’t read science fiction.”  I started to mention something of the sociology of sf readers, but didn’t make much headway, since it was way off topic for why I was there that day.

I don’t mean to suggest that there isn’t and hasn’t been sexism in science fiction and fantasy.  Obviously there is and has been.  But these criticisms aren’t based on that charge.  It’s not “I don’t read sf because it’s sexist”, but “sf isn’t for women.”

Perhaps this is an American problem.  We’ve created a horrendous socialization of science, setting up numerous STEM fields as mostly-male.  To the extent that people see sf as about STEM, maybe Americans sort out their story preferences accordingly.

In that New York Times rebuke to Game of Thrones I mentioned earlier, the author (Ginia Bellafante) argues that the show should only appeal to males.  “all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise.”  A justifiable fear.   No woman alive.

Bellafante goes on:

While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first. “Game of Thrones” is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.

“Boy fiction.”

Obviously subsequent history puts the lie to this, as Game of Thrones has become epically popular across the gender divide.  But when the author typed this column, fantasy’s popularity was well known in the present day.  Fantasy fandom has featured huge numbers of women readers and writers for decades!  And some writers responded to Bellafante right away (for example).

Was this just a slip of the column, or a sign of personal taste?  Or did Bellafante reveal another reason for the hatred of sf?

sf novels_Quinn DombrowskiMarket segmentation The age of the internet has expanded our media opportunities immensely.  I like seeing which sub-subcategories Netflix generates for me (I think one was “1970s British cynical tv comedies”).  One way we’ve responded is to burrow into our niches and subdomains (cf the filter bubble and echo chamber concepts).  So perhaps people have selected themselves out of the sf world and live only among their anti-genre ilk.  That keeps their disdain fresh and socially supported, without having to confront sff.

Back to Gina Bellafante, who defended her review thusly:

I realize that there are women who love fantasy, but I don’t know any and that is the truth: I don’t know any. At the same time, I am sure that there are fantasy fans out there who may not know a single person who worships at the altar of quietly hewn domestic novels or celebrates the films of Nicole Holofcener or is engrossed by reruns of “House.”

“I don’t know any… I don’t know any.”  She saw fit to repeat that three times in two columns.  I’m reminded of Pauline Kael’s line about not knowing anyone who voted for Nixon.  Maybe anti-sf is now a social segment, or a lifestyle.

Or consider this British literary authority, in that article about K.S. Robinson:

John Mullan, Naughtie’s fellow judge for this year’s prize and professor of English at University College London, said that he “was not aware of science fiction,” arguing that science fiction has become a “self-enclosed world”.

“When I was 18 it was a genre as accepted as other genres,” he said, but now “it is in a special room in book shops, bought by a special kind of person who has special weird things they go to and meet each other.”

I like how that last point goes against my point about sf being more popular than ever before.  “We’re not isolated; *you* are the isolated one, in your sub-standard genre ghetto! weirdos!”

Taken together, I think there’s a mix of these reasons, culminating on the social exclusion one.  Hating sf is a social practice, like being punk in the early 1980s or homesteading in the 21st century.  It’s a mix of taste, accumulated decisions, social reinforcement, and accreted attitude.  Disdaining sf signals one’s style, politics, and taste, much like any socially connected fashion.

As the 21st century progresses further into science fiction territory and fantasy continues to win an ever-large audience, hating those genres will become ever sharper, more insurgent, stranger, and more inappropriate to the times, like flying the Confederate battle flag.

What do you think?  What’s your experience of anti-sf disdain?

*I’m not going to get into defining science fiction or fantasy here.  

I’m also excluding horror, because it’s mutated into something very different now.  I’d like to address horror in a separate post later on.

 

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23 Responses to Why do people still disdain science fiction and fantasy?

  1. Steven Kaye says:

    I’d argue fantasy should also be separated – since at least Kingsley Amis’ New Maps of Hell fantasy has been stereotyped as reactionary, and I’ve long suspected it also gets short shrift because of the prominence of women authors.

    In my sentimental moments I think speculative fiction is hated because it forces people to consider the present and what the future could be, and that’s too painful.

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  2. VanessaVaile says:

    I see a generation gap as well as a gender one. Recalling disdainful flack from some graduate students for mentioning an interest in Neal Stephenson for city literature, my research area, I’d suspect an education level or disciplinary one.

    John Walton there (author of Western Water Wars) was interested in detective fiction from a sociology perspective ~ development, urban studies, contrasted the two genres as restoration or maintenance of established order vs change. Comparing urban dystopias in the two genres could be interesting. I got a disapproving reaction from one of the residents for mentioning science fiction, “young people read that.” She reads detective fiction. Probably cozies with spunky but virtuous older heroines. I read some too but probably not the same authors.

    My mother called science fiction the last home of the allegory. One Davis lecturer included a Dante canto in her Science Fiction and Fantasy course.

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  3. In 1977 I was privileged to take a sf writing class from Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, and Harlan Ellison at Antioch University West. It was hands down the best class I ever took because they taught me how to write metered prose.

    The letter of recommendation I got from Sturgeon was gold because it allowed me as a part-time (pink collar offshore) English instructor to teach Science Fiction. Mind you, no full timer would be caught dead teaching it, probably because the drop rate wasn’t high enough (fewer students = less grading). My husband Peter also ended up teaching it (and Shakespeare, “anything but the present”), and many the rich conversation that has ensued.

    Oregon is a hot bed of sf writers. Not only Molly Gloss, Frank Herbert, Kate Wilhelm, and Ursula K. LeGuin, but the Wordos and the epic annual OryCon. SF is big business in so many ways in Oregon that I believe by this time that stigma has worn off. Le Guin famously wrote an article for the Oregon English Journal called, “Why I Write in Despised Genres,” but people who turn up their noses at LeGuin are just showing their own ignorance by this point in time.

    I think romance is the much more despised genre in 2016.
    But I think humans are pack animals who cannot resist hierarchical stratification. Everyone has to be above or below each other on the so called pecking order. The English and East Coast are obsessed with Upstairs/Downstairs class. I found both the Downton Abbey series and the Harry Potter books boring because of all the “I am Magic, you are Muggles” class struggle subtext–although I’m sure the Marxists are having a field day.

    You wrote another post recently about people putting you down because of your alternative life style. This is the same theme. But because of our animal nature, these jostlings for perceived position will always be with us. The question is: how will you and I react? With more sharp elbow nudgings: “My genre is more legit than your genre”? Or by drawing on some deeper self assurance that we really can live in a place beyond the pecking order of the barnyard: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

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    • What an amazing, amazing class, Sandy. Holy cats.

      Romance is getting bifurcated, and largely along gender lines. There’s been a steady feminist attempt to recuperate it since Janice Radway (1984), and Hollywood has returned to making big romantic epics. But there’s no sign of approval from the Martian side of the house.

      Back to Oregon: maybe this is a regional thing. So many sf writers were active in NYC and the west coast.

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  4. Phillip says:

    We are in very divisive times. A significant slice of the former privileged are seeing their position, economic viability, and future comfort (psychological as well as social) under threat. A genre of writing the aske you to imagine a future substantially different from the present and even further from the past they long to reinstate is a demanding as well as frightening challenge.

    SF is to me more an anything an exercise in imagination. Often it initially presumes a significant departure from the present. Many writers bring a common humanity to the fore to help bridge the disjunctions of the creatively imagined and the reader’s comtemporary frame of reference. but if one’s current status quo is distressing or portends future disruption then it’s not too surprising the genre that brings that up would be dismissed if not also despised. Why would you look forward to imagining an ominous future where your values are no where to be found?

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    • That’s a great point, Phil.

      Makes for an interesting resonance with the 2016 campaign. Sanders and Trump argued that things are going badly, and so imagining a new world is required. Clinton argued that things were actually ok, and need tweaking. There’s a kind of conservative attitude in the latter, not very sfnal.

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  5. Phillip says:

    Let add a footnote as I just read Maria Popova wonderful Brainpickings post by Ursula K Le Guin. She wrote about the imagination, to which I referred as the reason why SF is such a challenging genera.

    “The most powerful such tool, Le Guin argues, is the imagination — the ability and willingness to imagine alternatives to reality as we know it, which is always the first step toward making different and better realities possible. She points to storytelling as the most powerful use of the imagination in expanding our scope of the possible…”

    Both of these writers are gifts to us all.

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  6. jtabron says:

    Ah, I could talk about this all day.

    I feel like the 90s were kind of a high water mark in respecting science fiction; people like Samuel Delany and J.G. Ballard were writing literature that even literati could not deny was good, and people like Joanna Russ and Ursula LeGuin had a fair amount of respect in the feminist circles that were gaining ground at some universities. (Not that these were related or unrelated, both two streams of happy occurrences in the positive direction.)

    So I could see taking this two ways: “why have people always dumped on F&SF?” or, “What happened in the 90s when F&SF almost got respectable and then failed?”

    I think it’s more the latter, and I would suggest that a few things happened, though I was probably not tuned in enough to notice.

    One thing that happened is that after years of trying to include women and people of color, there was a backlash. We see the results of this still today with the Sad Puppies, but I’m not just talking about them. I’m saying that F&SF are noticeably whiter and more male than when I was growing up on them.

    Another thing that happened was anti-intellectualism. Again, this had two streams: the population in general felt OK about denigrating a literary form that had traditionally been the purview of eggheads. Talents like Chip Delany aside, an awful lot of F&SF writers came from an academic background, and that was no longer something to admire.

    But at the same time there was growth in the area of “It may not be logical but I like it like that.” I’ve seen this myself, at the last con? I think? that I went to, where a whole panel got sidetracked into what I would characterize as a kneejerk political discussion that had far more to do with the attendees’ personal feelings on a number of positions than any book, or any idea posited in any book. Maybe a perfectly valid public discussion about literature, but wouldn’t have been tolerated for more than five minutes at any con I went to in my youth.

    And one last thing I noticed, also at that con, which undoubtedly was not representative but take it for what it’s worth: those attendees were noticeably poorer, with less access to resources of all kinds including education, than, say, the attendees I’d met at the same con even ten years before. I don’t know if that was an off day, but to me it felt like I was seeing the destruction of the middle class first hand. F&SF readers used to be people with decent jobs who had the free time to read and write and discuss fairly abstruse topics. These people were struggling to take off a Saturday to attend panels for fun, and as such the stakes for them were incredibly high – this was their one fun opportunity, their one vacation, in a very long time. Anecdotal, but imagine how that spreads across the entire United States, where a person’s fun time in this economy might be limited to when they can watch a show on Netflix or read an e-book (or listen to the audible version) in snippets in between work shifts, in or out of the home. Not much time for thinky fun in that type of economy. And F&SF are thinky types of fun.

    PS all my faculty in college told me that they read mysteries for fun, neither SF nor romances. Given the market shares – romances are incredibly popular – , I suspect that may be true but also may be a bias of self-reporting surveys – that is, you say what you think you should say. 🙂

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    • What a generous response, Judith, worthy of one or two full posts on its own.

      The middle class: that makes a lot of sense. Should we expect a flowing of the short story, then?

      “It might not be logical” – what’s the source of this, a politics of personal stories, or a dissatisfaction with science, or…?

      Detective stories: check out Vanessa’s comment. You two are onto something.

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  7. Hi Bryan,

    This was a great essay. It got me thinking a lot about how profoundly SF influenced my career. I’m advising first-year students this year, and one of our preparatory exercises about helping them discern their direction in life got me thinking about how I would up where I am. I realized that one of my primary goals for college was to learn enough about science to bring some aspect of science fiction into reality. And now I am a roboticist.

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  8. emdalton says:

    I think the anti-intellectual bias has something to do with it. The film _Interstellar_ touched on this when it portrayed teachers in an apocalyptic world preferring to believe the Moon landings were faked and that science, in general, was a source of problems, not solutions.

    I also think speculative fiction is more work to read than some other kinds of fiction. My younger daughter has been trying to read C.J. Cherryh’s _Foreigner_ (sociological and linguistic science fiction) and finds it tough going, even though she’s a linguistics major and quite intelligent. She’s not used to having to mentally construct and maintain an alternate world while reading a story. Media such as video or manga do a lot of the heavy lifting in this regard (though often at the expense of complexity and consistency).

    I encountered the “genre” bias in a writing class in college, and took on the task of demonstrating to the instructor that the field of speculative fiction contained many excellent writers and could not be dismissed so easily. In fact, every other genre can be found within speculative fiction, I argued, including “literary fiction.” I think I was fairly convincing. 🙂

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    • Excellent point about anti-intellectualism, emdalton .
      Perhaps some of this is CP Snow’s old two cultures divide, with humanists not wanting to learn math or science or sociology?

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      • emdalton says:

        Some of it, probably, but there’s also a broad and growing mistrust in our culture of anything “intellectual,” including literature or historical analysis. I can accept that not everyone wants to read about alien biology or cybernetics in their fiction– we all have our favorite subjects. But I would think any serious literary wonk would want to read Jasper Fford’s “Thursday Next” series, set in an alternate universe in which there are major government agencies vying over ownership and provenance of original drafts of literary works, and people go door to door to proselytize for different theories of who really wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare. 🙂

        I think, also, that too often optimism gets dismissed as escapism. Science fiction tends to be about people recognizing and solving problems, rather than simply blaming them on some arbitrary “other.” The best science fiction celebrates new ideas, rather than rejecting the unfamiliar. The parallels to contemporary political campaigns seem fairly obvious. (Sadly, the field of science fiction, or at least SF fandom, is not immune to the temptation to xenophobia– @jtabron already mentioned the Sad Puppies.)

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      • Antiintellectuals are certainly loud these days. Perhaps they feel like they have to shout more in the face of so much information made available through the internet.

        Alas, good point about xenophobia, rather than xenophilia.

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  9. jugoretz says:

    Thanks for this, Bryan! I’m reading it just 30 minutes before heading in to teach the first session of my Visions and Universes class (http://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/sciencefiction16/scheduletopics/) and you can bet we’ll be discussing it. I think that the disdain you’re talking about, while still real, is much less than it was when I was younger. My class is over-enrolled. My students (I’ve taught this class before) usually give me puzzled looks when I talk about how unpopular and unacceptable it was to read SF (and even worse to be part of organized fandom) when I was young.

    It’s movies and video games (and some TV), I think, that have changed the landscape and reception of the genre somewhat. There are ways that SF is now part of the popular cultural landscape and acceptable because of that.

    Yeah, the disdain is still there, for sure. But we do now have a Science Fiction Museum (I had to click on your photo above to make sure it wasn’t one that I shot. 🙂 ). We really do and it’s in a Frank Gehry building, no less! When I was there years ago, I found myself crying. There was something very powerful in seeing the authors and works that meant so much to me honored so publicly. It was like a recognition of all of us who were outsiders, didn’t fit, dreamed and were unpopular in what seemed like a conformist and conforming world where there was no place for the weird and awkward. In those days before the internet, it was hard for us to find each other. And those imagined worlds in books, written by authors who seemed to be like us, were the place where we had a community.

    I think, too (and this is something I haven’t fully worked out yet), that there was something powerful and even beautiful about SF and SF fandom in the days when the disdain was at its strongest. I hope to write more about that sometime. To be outsiders and to have a literature of outsiders changes when it becomes more inside. So maybe there’s something valuable for us as fans in keeping some of the disdain going. I’m still not in complete understanding of why I wept at the Science Fiction Museum.

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    • What a great syllabus, Joseph! So many neat combinations (“Cold Equations” and Ann Leckie!).

      I had a very similar reaction at the SF Museum. Couldn’t stop grinning, and something got into my eyes.

      Maybe the media help power that disdain. Film is acceptable, but one can easily dismiss Hollywood. And computer games are still sneered at.

      Ghettos are a source of strength, are they not?

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  10. Pingback: Is Disdain for Science Fiction and Fantasy Rooted in Jealousy? - Donald Dingerson

  11. Pingback: Is Disdain for Science Fiction and Fantasy Rooted in Jealousy? - Donald Dingerson

  12. Pingback: Is Disdain for Science Fiction and Fantasy Rooted in Jealousy? – Donald Dingerson

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